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Hebrew Poetry Forms

A translation of Proverbs 31 showing the alphabetic acrostic found in the Hebrrew text.  The words in the center read "woman of valor" (eshet hayil).

Anyone who has sat down to read through the Psalms has probably encountered the occasional feeling of déjà vu. “Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. / O Lord, make haste to help me …”—wait, what Psalm is this? 70? Didn’t I just see this back in Psalm … where is it … 40? Though only a few biblical poems quote each other as extensively as do those two, the attentive reader of biblical Hebrew poetry sees similarities across many poems. Even more, poems often resemble one another not just in content but also in structure.

These structures, the skeletons on which the poets built their poems, are the “forms” of Hebrew poetry, and Hebrew poetry is deeply attuned to form, down to its smallest parts. Lines are typically concise (think Emily Dickinson or Bashō, not Walt Whitman). The first line of Ps 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”), though short and rich in English, tallies a modest four Hebrew words (yhwh ro’i lo’ ehsar). Also, though biblical poetry lacks meter, it does have rhythm. Most verses are made up of two or three parts, or “versets,” each of which has two to four accented syllables. Poets connect their versets using biblical poetry’s most distinctive feature, parallelism. See the opening of Ps 56:

“Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;
all day long foes oppress me.”

Here, in a style typical of Hebrew poetry, the second verset uses parallel words and syntax to develop the ideas of the first verset (“foes oppress” // “people trample”).

Form, in other words, is apparent in Hebrew poetry at all levels. However, the concept of the forms of Hebrew poetry often refers to the various genres, or types, of poems. Even when not borrowing entire phrases, poems often employ what look to be common templates. Ps 56 above is an example of the genre of individual lament. In addition to the cry for help, this particular genre also includes an expression of trust (verse 11) and a vow of thanks (verses 12–13) (compare similar poems, such as Ps 3, Ps 22, Ps 88).

The entire list of possible poetic genres is long indeed, but other examples include royal psalms (Ps 45), hymns (Ps 104), love poetry (Song 1), dirges (Ezek 19), blessings (Gen 28), communal laments (Ps 79), prophetic controversies (Mic 6:1-5), victory songs (Judg 5), city laments (Lamentations), and oracles against foreign nations (Obadiah), as well as shorter poems such as riddles (Judg 14:14), proverbs, and even drinking songs (Isa 22:13)! Some of these genres’ names come from the Bible—Ezek 19 calls itself a dirge (Hebrew qinah). Most, however, were coined by modern biblical scholars working with the method called form criticism, whose founding figure is the German scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932).

Traditionally, form critics have aimed not only to name genres but also to connect these genres to their original social settings. So, prophetic disputations might have emerged from a legal context, dirges from funerary practices, royal psalms from the king’s court, and so on. Recent research has taken form criticism in new directions, showing how poets also use genres in imaginative ways. For example, the lengthy acrostic Ps 119 is rigorously structured, indeed rigorously formal, yet it draws freely from the lament genre and uses its elements to make something new: a meditative celebration of Torah. Poets let themselves be guided, not dictated to, by the constraints of form. Just like Joel, who turned Micah and Isaiah’s ploughshares into swords (or the other way around; see Joel 3:10, Isa 2:4, Mic 4:3), biblical poets understood the power of playing on readers’ expectations.

  • Sean Burt

    Sean Burt is an assistant professor in religious studies and English at North Dakota State University. His research interests include Persian-period Judaism, genre theory, and the Psalms. He is the author of The Courtier and the Governor: Transformations of Genre in the Nehemiah Memoir (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014).